ORLANDO, Fla.—C Spire Wireless gave some clues about its upcoming LTE devices today after leaving out those specifics when it announced an end to the nine-month delay on the network’s launch, a delay it has yet to fully explain.
“We plan to have a full suite of devices when we launch this fall,” C Spire President and CEO Hu Meena said Friday during a roundtable discussion at the Rural Cellular Association’s (RCA) conference.
He did not say whether USB modems, smartphones, tablets or a mix of all three would be provided in the “full suite” when the service goes live.
The regional provider’s new network was originally set to launch at the end of last year, but C Spire said earlier this month it would not light up until September.
AT&T’s four-year exclusive hold on the iPhone is still a sore spot for smaller wireless providers that say it can be difficult convincing manufacturers to provide them with the same high-end smartphones carried by their top-tier competitors.
But Meena said C Spire – the only operator of its size to carry the iPhone – didn’t run into significant problems securing devices for its network.
However, he did say the influence of larger operators like AT&T and Verizon Wireless on manufacturers was apparent during negotiations.
“We talked with one device manufacturer and they showed us some interesting stuff – but they said they had to check with big carrier ‘X’ first. They had to check to see if it’s okay to sell to us,” he said. “There’s something messed up about that… it’s just unfortunate that there are those out there who can control the marketplace.”
Fellow panelist Jonathan Foxman, president and CEO of MTPCS/CellularOne, said his company also had been cut off from carrying smartphones because of exclusivity deals.
“We absolutely have had distributors say that a device is going exclusively with carrier X,” Foxman said, calling it “completely inappropriate and disheartening.” “That’s not how the industry should function. It’s a really unhealthy dynamic but it goes on all the time.”
The executives participating in the roundtable took up the RCA’s call for an open marketplace that allows lower-tier carriers to get access to the devices, equipment and spectrum they need to compete with top-tier carriers.
Many of the RCA’s members are working to launch LTE, but their efforts have been stymied by a lack of interoperability between their section of 700 MHz spectrum and the band classes held by AT&T and Verizon.
The issue makes roaming impossible, a major hurdle for companies that are only able to build out their network across a limited area.
Cricket, Sprint, the head of RCA and others have called for carriers to collaborate on LTE rollouts through network and spectrum sharing deals similar to Sprint’s now-canceled contract with LightSquared. Atlantic Tele-Network President and CEO Michael Prior said that such arrangements “make sense,” but warned that hashing them out could be difficult.
“It’s complicated to conceive of how you work it out,” Prior said. “The devil is in the details with things like spectrum sharing in particular, but we’re at a point where we need to use these techniques.”
The bleak picture for spectrum comprised a large part of the next roundtable, when regulatory experts provided a grim assessment of operators’ chances of securing additional airwaves.
Verizon’s AWS grab takes a valuable chunk of spectrum off the market, the FCC’s next AWS sale could be a long ways off and the upcoming auctions of television broadcast spectrum are likely to take longer and yield less bandwidth than originally anticipated.
“Sometimes I look at the FCC’s spectrum dashboard and it’s like looking at things we’re never going to own,” said Douglas Minster, vice president and general counsel for Atlantic Tele-Network. “Something needs to get put in place that should be more robust and more capable of getting spectrum into the hands of operators.”
Like network and spectrum sharing, that mechanism could be a long ways off.